Category Archives: people

Brain + Body = Connected

Within us there is most definitely a brain-body connection. To quote Mary Richards, emotions – thoughts – beliefs live in our bodies, not just in our brains. Mary is one of two yoga teachers (the other being Lizzie Lasater) leading Deep Rest, a four week deep dive into how to nourish our bodies through exhaustion.

Our bodies and our brains have an intimate relationship, not just due to sharing the inner space of our outer shell, but also because our emotions and thoughts manifest within our bodies. Ever get a nervous stomach, that sensation of butterflies in your belly, before speaking in public or going on the stage or taking a test for which you might or might not have sufficiently prepared? Ever feel a loop-de-loop in your heart or belly when you see someone you love or have a crush on? Ever have your heart feel heavy or your body feel deeply tired when you are overwhelmed with sadness? Ever hear an unsettling story and have the hair on your arms stand on end? Ever find your body physically experiencing something being described to you by someone else?

This first of four exploratory weeks focused on “somatosensory processing” or sensing what is happening in the body. I have been practicing yoga for 16 years and leading yoga for almost five years, and one of my mantras is “let your breath be your guide.” By focusing on the breath it becomes possible to tune in to the sensations of the body and that, in turn, makes space to notice what we feel and how we feel.

Deploy our intention to pay attention to the barely susceptible sensations of the body and connecting them to perceptions, beliefs, judgements in the brain and welcoming them as messengers. From those messengers, we can learn.

Mary Richards channeling Richard Miller of iRest

In the practices I guide there are always multiple pauses with the cue to go inside and listen to what the body has to share, notice the sensations, and respond accordingly. As Mary noted in her brief lecture, in asana (asana being poses) we are learning to concentrate on sensory experience, and by noticing the sensory feedback we are then able to make choices based on that feedback, often different choices than might have been made if we weren’t paying attention to our sensory experience. The ultimate result is we can start to change the rote patterning of our brains that responds based on past experience and begin to rewire our brains to respond based on current experience.

Lead with the present tense of the body

Mary Richards

So how does all this fit in with the topic of the course, dealing with exhaustion. Mary and Lizzie provided one way to think of immense tiredness: it results from either hanging on or pushing away rather than accepting and acknowledging. (See the first quote.)

Using the currently free app Pocket Brain to display colorful, clear visuals, Mary discussed the various areas of the brain that are related to planning and executing movement. Most of what follows comes directly from my notes, which in most instances is verbatim.

Pre-frontal cortex Focuses on the “where” of movement, such as where to place the feet.

Pre-motor cortex Sustains our attention for movement that takes place over time, such as in building, cooking, putting something together or sustaining a headstand.

Primary motor cortex This area is a major contributor for yoga students and teachers as it informs movement choices based on auditory and visual cues.

Primary somatosensory cortex Sensations are processed from pain, touch, vibration, temperature and, interestingly, the smaller the input (such as fingers), the more space allocated in this area.

Somatosensory association cortex Information is interpreted, and objects can be recognized without seeing them, such as feeling something in the dark or behind some other object and knowing what it is. Mary likened this to connecting the dots.

Primary visual cortex This is where we process what we see. Mary suggested trying to practice with eyes closed, if that is accessible. When we practice with eyes closed, other areas of the cortex are lit up that increases our accuracy in regulating balance.

Anterior lobe of cerebellum (The cerebellum has long been my “favorite” part of the brain as it deals with novelty and movement.) Movement is refined in this area and gross (large) body movement is coordinated.

Posterior lobe of cerebellum Coordinates fine-motor skills, such as fingers.

At this point in the lecture time was fast approaching for the physical, experiential portion of the live webinar. Mary provided a brief overview of the Pons (bridge between the cerebellum and the cerebrum) and Medulla (information highway between brain and spinal cord, and regulation of respiratory and cardiovascular systems), which sit at the base of the brain above the brainstem. In particular, she mentioned sensory nerves (sight, sound, touch), which send information from the body to the brain, and motor nerves (movement instructions to contract muscles), which move information form the brain to the body. She noted that there is a lot more movement in the sensory nerves than in the motor nerves, upon which Lizzie questioned whether schools are designed adequately given what we know about movement and how children spend so much time sitting.

I picked up (or maybe was reminded of?) new vocabulary. Sensory nerves are afferent, “conducting inward or towards something” while motor nerves are efferent, “conducting outward or away from something.”

Functional areas of the brain from the app Pocket Brain

Nonviolent Communication: Identifying & Expressing Feelings

This is a chapter in semantics. But I get ahead of myself!

Nonviolent communication (NVC) is an approach developed by Marshall Rosenberg for communicating with others. I have been reading his book and thinking about how useful it might be for a wide ranging array of conversations as well as for garnering an understanding of oneself. My previous post was about the first of the four essential precepts of NVC; this post is about the second, identifying and expressing feelings.

On the one hand, especially for me, this might seem quite easy to accomplish. I can often sense my feelings and usually have little difficulty expressing them, though more intense feelings or feelings as a result of complex situations, often leave me a bit encumbered in trying to state how I feel.

Turns out, precept two is an exercise (and a chapter) in semantics. Semantics is all about the meaning of words, and what we may call “feelings” are not always – according to Rosenberg – feelings. For instance on page 43 there is a list of words, many of them verbs that end with “ed” and he ascribes these words to “how we interpret others, rather than how we feel.” The way I speak, any of these words could easily have been used to express a feeling.

Rosenberg makes several distinctions: “between feelings and thoughts; between what we feel and what we think we are; and between words that describe what we think others are doing around us, and words that describe actual feelings.”

All is not lost in the world of words! To assist with expressing feelings Rosenberg provides a two-and-a-half page list of words for describing emotions. (Refer to the image at end of this post.) As for the difference between emotions and feelings, there is a wealth of information available with a quick web search, and I leave that to you if it is of interest.

Perhaps the strongest lesson I take from this chapter is the importance of thinking before I speak in order to come up with accurate expressions of what I want to express. For me, this is not just about expressing feelings, but having conversation in general. There is such a wealth of words available to us if we give ourselves time to choose them and incorporate them into our daily language. I am not suggesting using “fancy” words when simpler ones will do; just choosing the words that most truly reflect our feelings and thoughts.

Nonviolent Communication: Observing Without Evaluating

Not too long ago I heard of a new three-session workshop, Difficult Conversations: Using Nonviolent Communication in Our Relationships, hosted by a yoga teacher whom I have studied with multiple times online. The required reading is the book What We Say Matters: Practicing Nonviolent Communication, authored by the teacher and her former husband. Ultimately, I decided to pass on the workshop to conserve funds that have been too readily spent during the pandemic!

In the meantime, during a conversation with our younger son and his girlfriend, I mentioned the workshop, and immediately Katryna responded that it reminded her of the book Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg, which she had on a bookshelf, having read portions of the book but not a cover-to-cover read. I then blurted “that is who trained the leader of the workshop!”

All this by way of explaining how, thanks to our local library, I have come to read Rosenberg’s book.

In general, I tend not to have patience for reading self-help books, which is what this book initially felt like. However, I was determined to give it a try and so pushed on to chapter two and then chapter three, by which point I was hooked.

Nonviolent communication (NVC) is grounded in four essential precepts, the first being observation without evaluation. Immediately this idea hit home. As a teacher and a parent, I can recall too many instances where adults made value judgments based on what they saw rather than simply stating what they noticed. A typical example: This child is lazy because she does not turn in her homework on time. The observation would be: This child does not turn in her homework on time. The judgement is: This child is lazy.

This type of thinking is not unusual for us humans, as assumptions about the reasons behind what is seen or heard helps to give meaning to actions. Unfortunately, it is not unusual for those assumptions to be made without benefit of knowledge or understanding of the actual conditions behind the action. The result is inaccurate evaluation; evaluation that is incorrect.

Our older son and his wife are both trained Montessori Guides and as such had to studiously learn how to observe children without evaluating them. After one of her training days, Sandra returned home and described spending hours at the Central Park Zoo diligently recording regularly paced observations in a journal. Each observation was of the same animal throughout the day. Even while it was sleeping she remained attuned to how it positioned itself, whether it moved, if it made noise, and anything else it did.

This may sound tedious, and at times she said it was, but it brought home to her the importance of simply observing. The exercise helped to fine-tune her sense of looking, watching, noting, heightening her awareness that observation takes focus. And, as I learned in a nature journaling class this past fall, only by truly focusing on an object can you begin to see it. Often, this focus leads to questions, which should be duly noted for future research, yet the questions are not the actual observation; they are two distinct entities.

Liz, the nature journaling instructor, shared the Curiosity Cycle. As this is a cycle, the Further Questions would lead to additional Observations, and so on. Drawing is from my Nature Journal.

While this is not a one-to-one equivalency with NVC, the observation component meshes them together. Simply put, an observation can only ever be a neutral statement of what is seen. The way to know the meaning behind what we see is to then ask questions to find out the “why”.

…I noticed close to one hundred ducks swimming in the Mill Pond, almost all of them moving in the same direction. Gradually, a bunch would turn 180 degrees and ascend in flight. Maybe they were swimming with the tide, or preparing for flight by swimming in one direction to give themselves enough of a runway for taking off in the other direction. And that had me wondering if there is any intentional synchronicity to floating en masse? Knowing that they do not ride the currents as other water fowl do, does wind direction impact how ducks prepare for flight? What is the relationship of this large group of ducks to one another? What is the deal with duck families?

From my Fall 2019 Nature Journal

Serendipity with Carol Dweck

I have not read the New York Times online in many months, and only receive the print edition on Sundays. However, it is mid-August, I am up quite early this morning, Joe Biden has just announced Kamala Harris as his running mate, it is still dark outside, and I decided it was time to return to checking in with the world what with the election a little less than three months from now.

(Not that I have been absent from the news; my husband keeps me up-to-date and I receive daily ‘breaking news’ emails from the Times. I just haven’t felt there was anything to be learned by bombarding myself with the negativity of the news. Fixed mindset, growth mindset or sanity mindset?)

This by way of explaining how it is I serendipitously came upon an article about Carol Dweck, someone I first wrote about in December 2007. At the time, Dweck’s theory of Fixed and Growth Mindsets made a big impression on me. Someone with a fixed mindset tends to believe that they are born with whatever intelligence they have, the brain is what it is, and that’s all there is, whereas someone with a growth mindset tends to believe that their brain is malleable, meaning it can change. Which mindset would you think is more conducive to learning?

As an individual, a parent and a teacher I found much to appreciate in the theory for myself, my children and my students. At the same time, I also felt thwarted by an educational system that may have wanted teachers to inculcate their students to the theory, but was unwilling to alter the checks and balances and methods of assessment that still sent home messages about individual learning not totally in concert with the idea that failing can promote learning.

If you are willing to take risks you will sometimes fail at what you try, but the very act of failing will give you the learning experience that sets the ground upon which the next learning risk will take place. This cycle of trying and making mistakes is what learning is all about. If you have a growth mindset then the mistake-making is not the end of the world but rather a jumping off point to decipher what went wrong and how it can be changed for improvement. That process is actually what learning is all about. Someone with a fixed mindset will likely give up and, as a result, not make any progress.

For years, until I retired from teaching this past June, I would share the following simple statements that actually have much meaning behind them:

Try it and see!

You made a mistake. How fascinating! (This came from a talk I watched by Ben Zander.)

Flop with fanfare, revise with relish! (I picked this up from an education listserv.)

So here I am this morning, browsing today’s articles in the Times, when an image captioned by “Feel Like You’re Going Out of Your Mind? Consider Your Mind-Set” comes into view. Over the years criticism has been lobbed at Dweck regarding this theory of mindsets, and perhaps what was most satisfying is that she took in the criticism and then used it as a springboard to fine tune the theory and further her research.

In any case, I appreciated stumbling upon this brief article. It was both a reminder of ideas I used to think about, as well satisfying to serendipitously revisit a person who had made educational news and was still out there doing her thing.

Yoga Nidra

WORKSHOP OVERVIEW
This past weekend I was at a 3-hour workshop hosted by the Yoga Teachers Association (YTA) of the Hudson Valley. The workshop, Yoga Nidra & Restorative Yoga, was led by Mona Anand, someone with whom I was already familiar having been introduced to her by a yoga colleague who extolled Mona’s training and online Yoga Nidras. I was eager to learn more and purchased Yoga Nidra to Lift Your Spirits on iTunes; it did not disappoint!

As with her iTunes album, the in-person experience did not disappoint either. During the  first 15 or 20 minutes Mona shared a bit about her background and provided an overview of what the remainder of the workshop would entail. From there she guided us through Restorative yoga followed by a 35-45 minute Yoga Nidra. The final 30 minutes consisted of elaboration and discussion based on a summary handout she provided. For more about Yoga Nidra in her own words, read Mona’s Introduction to Yoga Nidra. Be sure to scroll the page because the section about the Benefits of Yoga Nidra comes after the email slot for subscribing.

WHAT IS YOGA NIDRA?
The quick answer is that it is an experience somewhere between sleep and wakefulness, and you are led into that place by someone who continually speaks as they guide your attention (not your movement) to various parts of the body. This is different from Savasana, which is the final resting pose after any yoga practice and is a quiet practice. At the end of the practice Mona added that Yoga Nidra is designed to release thoughts and feelings, but not to analyze those thoughts or feelings.

THE HANDOUT
Mona’s approach to Yoga Nidra consists of nine steps and was developed by her and Alan Finger. The Yoga Nidra that I have experienced in the past has usually consisted only of what is Step 4 in this approach. The steps below, with some commentary by me, are from the handout shared at the conclusion of the workshop, copyrighted by Mona Anand and Alan Finger, 2008-2018.

1. Ekagrata – planting an image on the screen of the mind
Begin lying on the back with any support necessary to provide warmth and comfort. In this step you are guided to check in with your inner state as you draw your senses inward. Mona used the imagery of visualizing a flame at the third eye, that space between the brows.

2. Asana with nyasa – pre-yoga nidra asanas
The physical practice of yoga consists of poses (also called asanas). In looking up the meaning of “nyasa” I learned it is a series of touches on specific locations on the body. In the case of Yoga Nidra, these are not physical touches but visualized touches (more on this in Step 4.) As Mona guided us through asana she moved the flame down the body through the chakras. Typically chakras move from the bottom to the top, but she intentionally guided top-down to help draw us inward. She especially wanted us to focus on places where the body holds tension at the back of the neck and in the hips.

3. Pratyahara (antar mouna) – letting the mind move from sound to sound
Pratyahara refers to the withdrawal of the senses. During this phase Mona first guided us to listen to sounds around the room as we become aware of “antar mouna,” the practice of becoming aware of external sensory perceptions. From there she led us to draw our senses inward, pratyahara.

4. Rotation of Awareness – moving the mind through the body
This is the portion of Yoga Nidra with which I was familiar, having been led through it multiple times over the years. The guided travel through the body is intentional in its sequencing. The rotation is designed to clear the conscious mind, relax the physical body and increase body awareness, neurologically creating a circuit of energy in the brain, thus letting you go to the hypnogogic state. This is the state immediately before falling asleep. I have usually experienced this as a slow flow through the body where my attention was guided first fully to one side of the body, starting with a pinky finger and wending its way to the same side little toe, and then traveling the same route on the other side, leading to deep relaxation. When Mona guided this she “pinged” the body parts, thus pinging the brain, and had us travel from the feet upwards.

5. Nirodha – counting the breath backward
Starting with the number 11, count each breath going backwards. Since self-counting can tend to put people to sleep, Mona’s voice was intentional here in order to help people remain awake. Nirodha deprograms the mind and brings it to the present moment.

6. Pairing of Opposites – creating opposite sensations and emotions
The purpose of this step is to clear the subconscious mind and release emotional tension. The opposites are meant to induce a feeling of heaviness as muscles relax. Mona noted that the pairing of opposites is useful for people with PTSD to help them experience the range of what they miss when blocking out sensations. As she explained, you “cannot feel one side of the coin unless you can feel the other.” Examples of opposites include:

  • hot-cold
  • heavy-light
  • pleasure-pain

7. Rapid Visualization – fast moving images
In this step the unconscious mind is cleared, relaxing it so it can purge itself of painful memories. It is meant to be quick and consists of reference points to release what is in the subconscious so that it can “take out the garbage.” I enjoyed listening to the items but did not retain them and in the discussion that followed was tickled to hear one person list almost all of the items:

  • best childhood friend
  • Tinkerbell
  • hot cocoa
  • rainbow
  • warm sand
  • roses
  • white petals
  • smell of lavender
  • mother’s eyes
  • bonfire

8. Long Visualization – guided imagery
I have been guided through visualizations before and every time, including this one, I get lost somewhere along the line. It’s not that I do not know where I am, rather I simply tune out any speaking and eventually come back “online” usually towards the latter part of the visualization. This portion of Yoga Nidra frees one from being trapped by the boundaries of time and form, which is known as “maya.” It is a safe bubble.

9. Sankalpa – order from the conscious mind to the subconscious 
This is done seated and invites each person to set an intention before leaving. It is more productive to give instructions to the subconscious mind. Mona notes that in more advanced Yoga Nidra a seated meditation may be added between Steps 8 and 9.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS
Mona shared a way to think about how our brains deal with negatives and positives. She said negative emotions stick like velcro, whereas positive emotions slide off like teflon because we are wired to remember the one negative event (or comment) rather than the twenty positives. This comes from very early human history, when remembering the location of the one hungry lion (who might want to eat you) was more important than thinking about the twenty smaller animals you killed that day for food.

If you ponder those thoughts, you may perhaps see a similar pattern in yourself, noticing how the single slight can overtake the many positive interactions in a given day. This is likely why practices such as keeping a gratitude journal or doing the “Three Good Things” practice can be so beneficial.

That’s Mona in the left photo, leading the discussion after the experience. The workshop was packed and the room was quite chilly. We had been forewarned about the temperature so I dressed in layers (yellow arrows in second photo are pointing to me). Nothing like a mirrored wall to make the room seem larger and some of us seem to be in two places at once. 😉 I had the delight of sitting next to Paula, one of my three 200-hour Yoga Teacher Trainers (she is in the red top to my left.) Photos are from Mona’s Instagram feed.

 

Yoga Class as a Refuge

I recently watched Cyndi Lee in an archived  2017 online Yoga Alliance talk: Making Your Class a Refuge During Stressful Times. The title appealed to me partially because of how politics are unfolding in the U.S. and even more because I recently had a bit of stress around a reaction to a bee sting. (Little insect, big reaction, but the biggest reaction was to an antibiotic that was administered to make sure there was no blood infection. There wasn’t – yea – but my GI was terrifically unhappy with the medication.) I figured listening to the calming voice of Cyndi might prove a useful balm. (It did 🙂 and am relieved to say my GI has normalized after 11 malcontent days!)

While I didn’t glean new insights from Cyndi’s talk, there were plenty of reminders that I can never hear too often.  

  1. Think of yoga as a refuge for self-care, not an escape to avoid unpleasantness.
  2. Stay open and hold the space for everyone. Unless someone says something, there is no way to know what they are feeling or dealing with. So true, and not just during yoga!
  3. Trust the practice and lead with clarity, confidence and compassion.

Cyndi continued with four specific points.

  1. Create a safe and friendly haven. For the first two and a half years I shared poetry during practice and then let it slide. People enjoyed the poetry and often asked me to email them the poems. I have now recommitted to bring the poetry back! 
  2. Provide a quiet and spacious environment. I liked Cyndi’s distinction between “right speech” and “noble quiet” as she suggests finding the rhythm between the two. (I teach in a magical, calm space that looks out on a harbor.)
  3. Avoid stressors in the space. This relates to temperature, lighting, air quality and smells. I was reminded to add a line in my weekly email to wear layers for comfort.
  4. Keep up a personal practice. Yes! After a summer of almost daily swimming I have returned to morning yoga on my mat, WQXR playing in the background, my husband reading nearby. Ahhhhh…

I enjoyed Cyndi’s talk and was motivated to borrow Yoga Body, Buddha Mind from the library. Am enjoying her writing, finding it both calming and informative. A beauty of my yoga, both practicing and teaching, is I’m always learning.

 

Negativity Bias in the Brain

I previously blogged about Rick Hanson here in November 2017, and recently came across him again in an interview as part of the Mindfulness & Compassion at Work online summit. A friend sent me the link to MCW and I wound up watching two of the Day 1 interviews.

Hanson’s talk began with a review of brain development, which he likened to floors.

  • Floor 1 is the Reptilian brain – the brainstem and cerebellum located at the top of the spinal cord. This floor deals with safety.
  • Floor 2 is the Mammalian brain containing our limbic system – the amygdala, hippocampus and hypothalamus. Floor two deals with satisfaction.
  • Floor 3 is the Neo-cortex – the cerebral hemispheres, and deals with connection.

Hanson’s pithy analogy, which sums up his interview and also explains how these floors interact and function as a whole is:

The body (hardware) makes the mind (software).

What most interested me was Hanson’s discussion of the brain’s negativity bias. (For more detail you can read his article Confronting the Negativity Bias.) In the MCW interview he describes our brain as being like “velcro for the bad; teflon for the good” which was a necessary survival mechanism back in the days of living in the wild. Back then there was an over focus on safety because otherwise a person might become another animal’s dinner.

Over focusing on safety meant continually scanning for anything that could be detrimental to one’s life, thus the tendency to attend more to the negative factors (velcro for the bad) and less to the positive factors (teflon for the good). Fast forwarding to the twenty-first century, our brains have not forgotten how to self-protect; however, in our modern world we have far fewer heavy duty stimuli to protect against.

Instead, because the self-protection apparatus still resides within us, the system kicks in to protect us against the stressors of daily living instead of from becoming a lion’s next meal. This can become a problem if we do not learn how to ameliorate our limbic system’s natural tendencies to release cortisol whenever stressful situations are encountered. When cortisol (aka the stress hormone) is released, it sensitizes the amygdala to be on the alert. This, in turn, weakens the hippocampus, which would normally calm the amygdala and signal the hypothalamus to reduce the signals for the stress hormone. Not learning how or being unable to control our limbic system’s responses can result in living with chronic stress.

Hanson, who is the author of numerous books including Resilient, and Hardwiring Happiness, talked about the benefits of building self-reliance and “positive neuroplasticity.” According to him, just 10 minutes a day is all it takes to bring all three floors of the brain into a more positive, cohesive system. To quote him:

  • During the day look for about half-a-dozen little opportunities to feel a nice experience and notice that experience.
  • Acknowledge one thing in particular that you want to grow inside yourself and look for pathways to grow it.
  • Reset yourself by re-centering to drop into a safe, content, connected sense where all three levels of the brain are working in unison.

This resilience practice can help us manage with a strength that is calm, confident, contented, and coping rather than reactive. Via a deep breath or sigh establish a feeling of stability and move forward from there. For a slew of “simple practices” to hep build this resilience check out Hanson’s resources here.

Book Review – The Body Keeps the Score

I just finished reading Bessel Van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score. This is a powerful, at times quite difficult body of work to read. Being confronted by stories of other people’s trauma was at times shocking and at times cringe-worthy. I had to focus my eyes to stay on the stories yet disassociate myself from the actions behind the words.

With that said, this is a work of major importance for anyone interested in beginning to understand what trauma is and how it impacts people. In January of this year I participated in a trauma-informed training with the idea of teaching yoga in prisons. What brought me to the training was my brief experience co-leading a yoga class at the Westchester Correctional Facility in Valhalla, New York where I felt woefully unprepared. However, the training did not begin to adequately address my questions. In search of more information, I was introduced to a woman who offered to meet with me and share experiences and information. As both a lawyer and a yoga teacher in prisons, she  highly recommended Van Der Kolk’s book, and her suggestion was spot on.

There is so much information that this first read felt more of an overview. However, the book is quite in-depth, providing an overview of how the human brain functions and processes trauma, exploring how children’s brains develop and are impacted by trauma, explaining traumatic memory, and concluding with descriptions of multiple different paths to recovery. I have no idea if I will ever reread the book, but if I were to pursue the field of teaching yoga to populations impacted by trauma then this book would be on my book shelf and wind up with sticky notes coming off numerous pages.

It took me awhile to read and it is one week overdue at my library! Each chapter deserved attention and time to process. I found myself jotting down a quote or comment here and there as something caught my interest, beginning with the idea that trauma is held in all the cells of the body. I began to better understand the meaning of interoception, which is to feel and experience our body and visceral sensations. This ability can be deeply impacted by the experience of trauma. Furthermore, memories of somatic trauma are implicit, within body sensations, not explicit as narrative. In other words, memory of a trauma is held within the body, not within the frontal lobe where story telling would originate.

In order to have a sense of agencythe feeling of being in charge of your life, there needs to be interoception, attachment and attunement, these latter two a crucial part of healthy childhood development where the child develops a sense of self. Attachment is the act of developing a bond with a primary caregiver, usually a mother or father. Attunement is the synching of emotions and physical actions with another person, again usually the primary caregiver. This relies on mirror neurons, which Van der Kolk aptly describes as neural WiFi allowing one to pick up the movement, emotional state and intention of someone else.

I worked to understand what Van der Kolk referred to as the essence of trauma: Dissociation. 

Dissociation [happens when] the overwhelming experience is split off and fragmented, so that the emotions, sounds images, thoughts, and physical sensations related to the trauma take on a life of their own. The sensory fragments of memory intrude into the present, where they are literally relived. As long as the trauma is not resolved, the stress hormones that the body secretes to protect itself keep circulating, and the defensive movements and emotional responses keep getting replayed. (pg 66)

If the first two hundred pages are all about the brain and an explanation of trauma, told via other people’s stories, the last hundred and fifty are about recovery.

Trauma robs you of the feeling that you are in charge of yourself, of what I will call self-leadership…The challenge of recovery is to reestablish ownership of your body and your mind – of your self. This means feeling free to know what you know and to feel what you feel without becoming overwhelmed, enraged, ashamed, or collapsed. (pg 203)

Alas, while I wanted to leave this book with a sense of hopefulness, I found myself as discouraged as Van der Kolk when he noted in his conclusion that our western society does not seem compelled to visit the causes of trauma. Currently in the United States our various civic and political structures often undermine the very approaches that research tells us would help ameliorate the base causes of trauma. As he concludes: The choice is ours to act on what we know.

 

Book Review – The Art of Dying Well

from my Goodreads Review of The Art of Dying Well – A Practical Guide to a Good End of Life by Katy Butler


My father died in a nursing home; my mother died in her home, having set the conditions for how she wanted die. I prefer the latter, which is why I am drawn to books about (as this author calls it) the art of dying well. It is a handy “practical guide to a good end of life.”

As I am not in this phase of life, most of the book does not currently pertain, causing me to chuckle at the start of most chapters. Katy Butler begins chapters with “you are likely to find this chapter useful if…” followed by a list of descriptors, most which pertain to someone who is edging close to or ready for death. However, precisely because I am not at these stages yet, her book is helpful in thinking about death and how it can be a better process than most of us might otherwise imagine.

Sitting in my desk drawer are several versions of forms, any of which when filled out will stipulate the types of life-saving procedures I do or do not want administered. I have at least three versions and they are currently all blank. Butler is adamant that some type of “authorized representative” form be filled out that will let someone else interact with Medicare and have access to medical records, along with a Durable Power of Attorney for Finances, a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care, an Advance Directive and a Living Will. All of these forms are designed to be of guidance to anyone who will be helping you in any capacity when a time comes that you are unable to make decisions (be it temporarily or permanently) for yourself.

She further suggests Choosing Wisely to help eliminate unnecessary health screenings and Drugs.com or the Beers List from the American Geriatrics Society. The list helps check for drugs that are unhelpful or even dangerous for elders, and the Society is a useful resource tool.

In general, she recommends an HMO and Medicare Advantage, which she feels is better than a fee-for-service Medicare plan. And she absolutely states, multiple times, the importance of having a DNR and POLST or MOLST, creating multiple laminated copies and mounting one on the frig, keeping one in the car, giving copies to your doctor and those people most likely to meet you in an emergency situation or at the hospital.

POLST stands for Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment and more about this can be found at the National POLST Paradigm. MOLST stands for Medical Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment. These vary by state, so you would need to find the form for your state. Nonetheless, you can learn more about this at MOLST. Overall, Butler urges going for “comfort care.”

In the final chapter, Butler describes a program that I found phenomenal in its care of and approach to aiding not just an individual who is in the final stages of life, whether the individual has months ahead of them or just days, but also aiding their family. The program began in Syracuse, New York, although there are a few versions elsewhere around the country. The Syracuse program is PACEStay in the home you love. Get the care you need. This is based somewhat on the Eden Alternative, an organization I have read about in the past, it is dedicated to creating quality of life for Elders and their care partners, wherever they may live.

If you are of a certain age or have ideas or concerns about the dying stage of life, I heartily suggest reading this book. It might help dispel fears, and it certainly will provide what, for some people, will feel like a more positive alternative for facing and dealing with death, be it your own or someone you know. Further, Katy Butler provides multiple bits of information (many linked to in this review) that, unless it conflicts with your religious views, can be of tremendous assistance to you and those who might care for you if need be.

I think it an important enough book to have my husband and children read it at some point in the future and at the very least it is a prod for me to revisit topics with them that I have discussed in the past. (And sooner rather than later I should fill out one of the forms sitting in my desk drawer!) (And by the way, those forms can be revised as minds and circumstances change.)

Living Your Yoga

Last night I finished reading Judith Lasater’s Living Your Yoga – Finding the Spiritual in Everyday Life. I found this book while doing research to satisfy my curiosity about her, as Lasater is teaching an online class (Experiential Anatomy) that interests me. I was hooked by the book and last night wrote this brief review on Goodreads:

While I rarely understood the translations of any given chapter’s opening Yoga Sutra or verse from the Bhagavad Gita, I completely understood Judith Hanson Lasater’s explanations. By illustrating each with a personal story she makes the teachings accessible and relatable.

I found myself wrapped up in the short chapters and Lasater’s writing, the combination which caused me to pause for introspection in a way that other, similar type books have rarely managed to do. I paused several times in the reading to jot down a quote or a thought that sprang to mind. Those notes, and my response to the book, are going to wind up in a blog post in the near future!

And THIS is the blog post. 🙂

THE FIRST POP
The first piece that struck a chord was from Spiritual Seeking, the first chapter. Lasater writes that “Suffering is caused by the emotional reaction we lay on top of our pain. By becoming aware of our emotions and thoughts about pain, their hold on us can be released and our suffering can be lessened.” This approach resonated partially because I have a high tolerance for physical pain, and also because I can recall numerous times either I or my children counted backwards while getting a shot.

Taking my mind off the thought of the pain that might come from the shot, and switching my concentration to counting backwards, proved to be a perfect antidote to the “getting” of the shot. It is now not unusual to be completely unaware of when the shot is actually given.

THE SECOND POP
In the third chapter, Letting Go, I immediately thought of when my Dad was living in a nursing home and dealing with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Lasater talks about shifting perspective and opening yourself to seeing things the way they really are. With the help of yoga (I began my practice while caring for my Dad) I learned to truly appreciate the moments spent together without letting the sadness interfere with our visits. While yoga did not resolve or negate my sadness, yoga did help me make space for my sadness and at the same time hold space for spending positive time with my Dad in smiles and joy.

THE THIRD POP
During my 200 hour yoga teacher training Paula, one of our three teachers, shared this pithy approach to life: A good “no” is better than a bad “yes.” Imagine my head nodding in agreement upon reading Lasater’s words in Service, chapter sixteen: You can say no if that is more truthful than a resentful yes.

The idea here is that being of service, giving service, is all well and good and important, but not at the expense of the person giving. The caregiver needs to take care of themself in order to be truly able to care for another. So, too, with being of service as a volunteer. It is okay, indeed necessary, to sometimes say “no” or to take a break so as to recharge and not forget the joy in and reason for volunteering in the first place. Sometimes you need to relax and renew in order to sustain.

THE FOURTH POP
Early on, in chapter two on Discipline, Lasater provided thoughts related to practice. All those years of piano practicing as a child in order to “get better” and here are words of wisdom stating that while practicing can improve skills, the heart of practicing isn’t to “get better” but rather what you put into the practice in heart and soul.

Do what you can and do it fully.

Practice is not about what you get, it is about what you give.

thoughts

I do not utter any mantra with regularity or even occasionally. However, I do have these two sentiments on slips of paper, provided during two special yoga classes. I just happened to randomly chose each slip, and both sentiments were spot on for what I needed then and continue to need. These slips sit on the shelf above my bed; they are my welcome reminder to practice what they state.

They are reminders to be here now. While some of my musings on Lasater’s book may seem disjointed, the items that popped out serve as continued reminders to make space for what is and be in the moment.